Cardboard Monuments: City, Language and ‘Nation’ in Contemporary Telugu Cinema

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Cardboard Monuments: City, Language and ‘Nation’ in Contemporary Telugu Cinema

S.V. Srinivas

Senior Fellow

Centre for the Study of Culture and Society


The Tropical City and Cinema: Evidence from India

The question is not why geographers should be interested the cinema in Asia but how so much has been said about cities in this region without so much as a passing reference to cinema. Janaki Nair’s book on Bangalore demonstrates that the social scientist cannot but take cognisance of the fact that cities in India do not merely figure as representations in films but are a material part of the socio-cultural and political life of a city (Nair 2005). Not merely because films are an integral part of urban life and leisure but also because they have become the rallying points for mobilisation in the name of language and region. In Nair’s book the discipline of history (finally) confronts the fact that the cinema, unlike poetry, does make things happen. She comes to the conclusion that the nativists of the reluctant metropolis, otherwise known as India’s Silicon Valley and Singapore, include organized fans of the Kannada film star Rajkumar. Nair shows how cinema is a key element in the attempts to re-territorialize the city ‘by those who lay increasing claim to the city as a regional, rather than a national or international metropolis’ (Nair 2005: 237). With Nair’s work in the background it is easier for me to suggest that the analysis of film, its stars and their fans is not unrelated to the interests of a social scientist. This is indeed a good time to push the case of cinema because questions raised within the discipline of film studies have begun to evoke the interest of scholars located in other disciplines.1 There are good reasons for why this should be the case in India. This paper is an attempt to further the dialogue across disciplines for which the work of cinema in the tropical city is coincidentally enough, a good starting point.
In the south Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, the election to power of film stars as Chief Ministers has resulted in stray attempts by social scientists to examine the reasons for this phenomenon.2 This degree of intimacy between film and politics is perhaps unique to the region. Film historians and scholars have had much to say on the subject. S. Theodore Baskaran (1996) reminds us that every Chief Minister in Tamil Nadu since 1967 has been from the Tamil film industry (they include scriptwriters, male and female film stars). A decade later Baskaran’s statement continues to be true. The apparent replication of the Tamil Nadu model in Andhra Pradesh in 1983, with the election of N. T. Rama Rao (NTR) as Chief Minister, disturbed India’s foremost advocate of art cinema Chidananda Das Gupta and resulted in a full length book on Indian film stars in politics (Das Gupta 1991). More recently, M. Madhava Prasad (1997 and 1999) has attempted to develop an analytical framework that can account for the southern region as a whole. In doing so Prasad reclaims for the student of cinema the task of providing an explanation of a widely known and often acknowledged fact: movements of linguistic nationalism have shaped the southern region’s political life. Prasad argues that films of the region, which had a common origin in the Madras film industry, did not merely propagate ideas but created the groundwork for a specific kind of political mobilization, whose most obvious manifestation is the highly organized fan clubs of films stars on the one hand and the star-politician on the other. Prasad’s name for the phenomenon is cine-politics.3
All this is not of immediate interest to the urban geographer. Further, the excessive presence of the cinema in the public domain in southern India can simply be dismissed as a problem for those interested in the particular (this part of India). After all it is primarily an issue that concerns three states: Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. My suggestion here is that the specificity of the cinema’s career in southern India alerts us to a larger issue, which implicates other ‘tropical’ cities. Or at the very least the study of these cities. Here then is a hypothesis about tropical cities, which also house film industries or production centres: the city, cinema and nation exist in a complex relationship with each other. The cinema does not merely speak about these cities or to them. It also frames national questions and their relationship to the city. The tropical city is a stage for the acting out of contradictions thrown up by perpetually incomplete nationalist projects. The cinema is among the crucial sites for resolving such contradictions. In the process of doing so the cinema often by making claims on the city itself on behalf of one or another collective.
The linkages between the cinema of tropical countries and the national question have been much discussed in film studies. Except that in film studies we don’t often think of ‘tropical countries’ as a valid category. In this essay I would like to draw attention to the deeply problematic place occupied by the city in the larger order of things. The cinema, I will demonstrate in my examination of Telugu cinema, has much to say about this. Not the least because the cities that house film industries that speak to and for a larger community are not properly integrated into these very abstractions they help put together. Indeed the city’s own place in the schemes drawn up by state and capital is far from settled. Bombay/Mumbai, the home of Hindi film production, is certainly not a Hindi city. In spite of the national mandate of Hindi cinema, the city has in fact witnessed violent assertions of linguistic (and later religious) identities.4 The Telugu film industry, India’s second largest after Hindi, arrived at Hyderabad between the 1960s and 1980s after a long journey but found that its new home was not easily claimed as a Telugu city.5 How cinema grapples with the excessive particularity of the history and people of Hyderabad is the central question I want to take up here. My larger point is that the cinema as industry and public-political institution is an important player in battles for the ownership of the city.
In the rest of the paper I discuss the history of Telugu cinema, focussing on developments related to its relocation in Hyderabad from Madras. I then place the representation of the city of Hyderabad in films in a larger industrial and political context. Finally, I look at one key film to elaborate on the issues thrown up by contemporary Telugu popular cinema.
Telugu Cinema, Linguistic Identity and the Persistence of Regional Difference
The case I make here for why a geographer might find Telugu cinema interesting is based on the specificity of the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. But as I proposed earlier, this is only one manifestation of a larger connection between city-cinema-nation. Telugu films made since the late 1980s increasingly foreground Hyderabad, the capital of Andhra Pradesh, as the site and the prize of battles between different groups of people, each making a claim on the city. Films in this period make frequent reference to the threat posed by feudal and/or criminal elements from the city as well as the threat to the city from ‘backward’ regions of the state. A brief recall of the history of the state is essential for understanding the stakes involved.
Andhra Pradesh was created in 1956 by the unification of three distinct regions. The coastal districts or Andhra region or ‘Circar’ region were under the direct control of the British government and were a part of the erstwhile Madras Presidency. The Telangana region was ruled indirectly by the British and was the largest princely state of British India. Its ruler was called the Nizam. The Rayalaseema region is also know as ‘Ceded districts’ because the Nizam of Hyderabad ceded them to direct British rule (Maclean 1885). The unification of the state was a consequence of a popular agitation in the Andhra region, which eventually led to the formation of linguistic states across the country. The groundwork for unification of Andhra Pradesh was also laid by the Communist Party of India, which had adopted Stalin’s line on the resolution of the nationality question and therefore supported the formation of states within the Indian nation for linguistic nationalities.6
There is a remarkable degree of cultural difference between the three regions and each has a distinct dialect of Telugu. The city of Hyderabad is situated in the Telangana region and has never really figured prominently in Telugu literature or cultural productions produced outside Telangana before the unification of the state. I. Thirumali (1997: 23) argues that there was no popular support for unification in Telangana region. The unity of Andhra Pradesh came under severe strain over the past decade due to the rise of political formations campaigning for the formation of a separate Telangana state.7 While the recent agitation in Telangana is certainly the most sustained campaign for the reorganization of the state, there were in fact movements in all the three regions of the state demanding the division of the state along regional lines. The first round of public agitation for the division of the state began in the late 1960s in Telangana and immediately found resonance in Coastal Andhra.8 These demands for the division of Andhra Pradesh run contrary to the logic of linguistic reorganization of Indian states in 1956, which was a direct outcome of a popular agitation in the Andhra region.
Questions of language and linguistic identity politics are therefore far from resolved even to this day. It should therefore not come as a surprise that the formation of the state of Andhra Pradesh laid open new possibilities while shutting off others. The new state was formed by relinquishing the claim on Madras city (now called Chennai), the centre for film production and distribution in all south Indian languages and also a city in which the Madras Presidency Telugus had considerable emotional and financial investments. Upon state formation there were immediate calls from intellectuals, who also doubled as scriptwriters and lyricists, and some other sections of the film industry for a relocation of the industry to Hyderabad (from Madras). The press led a prolonged campaign against the industry’s location in Chennai. The argument was that the cinema of the Telugus could not possibly be made in a ‘foreign’ city after Andhra Pradesh was established.9 Almost immediately efforts to establish production facilities in Hyderabad began with the inauguration of Sarathy Studios in 1956 (completed in 1959). However, better production facilities in Madras ensured that a majority of Telugu films continued to be made there till the early 1990s. Even as demands for relocation to Hyderabad grew louder and more frequent, the state government introduced awards (for Telugu films), cash subsidies (for films produced in Hyderabad) and other concessions in cash and kind including land at cheap rates for building production facilities in the mid-sixties. Film stars led by Akkineni Nageswara Rao, the closest rival of N.T. Rama Rao led the exodus ‘home’ by insisting that his producers shoot their films there (Potukoochi 1964: 103).
Hyderabad, however, was far from being the home of Telugu cinema, as we shall see shortly. The film industry’s move to Hyderabad, which began in right earnest in the mid-1960s but was not complete till the late-1980s, involved a large investment in real estate (made available at subsidized prices by the government). Most of the industry’s major stars, in addition to established producers, demonstrated their commitment to the motherland by their ownership of huge quantities of land on which they began to build studios, cinema halls and houses from the mid-1960s.10
The massive film industry related investments in Hyderabad since the 1960s were a part of a larger movement of capital (not to mention people) originating in the rich coastal Andhra districts into Hyderabad and the rest of the Telangana region (Haragopal 1985: 69-71). So completely coastal Andhra centred was this conquest of Hyderabad that no attempt was made to produce films in Urdu, which was widely spoken in the entire Telangana region.11 But production in another language is a bit too much to ask for of a context in which Telugu cinema was consistently silent about regional difference and antagonisms. Like Hindi cinema of the partition era, there is almost no reference to the violence and trauma of the times. Neither the armed struggle led by the Communists to liberate Telangana (first from the Nizam and then from the Indian Union, 1948-52) and its suppression, nor the complex history of the reunification of the state figured in Telugu films. Till the late 1980s non-standard dialects of Telugu were used only to underscore subalternity and/or villainy and never as the speech of the protagonists. In thematic terms, or as setting too, the regions other than Andhra never made it to the Telugu screen. The idyllic village was invisibly marked as belonging to the (coastal) Andhra region. The ubiquitous paddy field, for instance, was a signifier that is at once understood as ‘typically’ Telugu but easily identified as actually belonging to the plains of coastal districts. The dialect spoken by villagers left room for little ambiguity. The city on screen was almost always Chennai, which as I mentioned earlier was where much of Telugu film production took place till the early1990s.
Against this backdrop, concerted efforts began to be made by the film industry to represent Telugu cinema not just as a cultural form that is in the Telugu language but one that is of the Telugus: as a form that is in fact an important source of their Telugu-ness.12
There can be little doubt that the very relocation of the film production to Hyderabad was a consequence of the complex linkages between the cinema and linguistic identity politics in Andhra Pradesh. The formation of Andhra Pradesh had a direct impact on the developments in the industry ever since. The foundation for the representational strategies that facilitated the emergence of ‘cine-politics’ was the opening up of the political geographical entity called Andhra Pradesh for the marketing of Telugu films. The Telugu ‘nation’ was among other things a potential market. Till the formation of the state viewing of Telugu films in the Telangana region (Hyderabad included) was negligible.13 This region was, and actually continues to be, a key distribution territory for Hindi films.
Two important developments took place in the two decades following the formation of the state. Firstly the market for films grew rapidly across the country, including Andhra Pradesh. Secondly, the rate of expansion of the market for Telugu films was much higher in Telangana than any other region of the state (Narasaiah 1981). Much of this expansion was made possible by the exponential growth in the number of cinema halls, which leapt from 484 in 1964 to 1904 in 1981.14 Andhra Pradesh today has the largest number of cinema halls in the country.
The process of integration of the regions seemed to be complete with the election to power of N.T. Rama Rao a decade after the violent suppression of the second Telangana agitation (1968-1972). As pointed out earlier, the reprieve from ‘separatist’ demands was only temporary.

Making Hyderabad a Telugu Film City

The Telugu film industry was and continues to be dominated by capital and expertise from the Andhra region. Except that both now have a claim over Hyderabad because the city has now become their home too. This moment, when the claims made by ‘non-locals’ are made on screen and have to be resolved by popular cinema, is critical for the purposes of this paper.

In the early years of film production in Hyderabad (mid-1980s) the city was merely a backdrop for producers of low budget Telugu films who came looking from cheap locations for shooting and of course government subsidies. Big budget vehicles of major stars continued to be produced from Madras. Film stories revolved around characters drawn from the ranks of the coastal Andhra middle class who found themselves in the capital city for reasons of employment and/or romance. The city’s older inhabitants didn’t even exist as far as these films were concerned.
As such this was not unexpected because film industries in India have often had to suture vast gaps between the universe of the story, the city of its location and the cultural context of the film’s addressee. In their Madras days Telugu films only rarely referred to the Tamil speakers of the city, even after the city became the capital of Tamil Nadu. M. Madhava Prasad (2004) argues, with reference to Hindi films made in Bombay, that their setting in the city had little to do with the importance of the location for the story. They are set in Bombay because the stories are in fact de-localized: they can happen anywhere.
One of the rites of passage into Hyderabad for the Telugu film industry was making films set in the city and incorporating the local. This was something of a departure from the industry’s aesthetic that was founded on generic cities and villages that were invisibly marked as belonging to the Andhra region. Siva (Ram Gopal Varma, 1989) is the most important early example of the city’s local specificity becoming a crucial element of the story. Paradoxically, the representation of the local also meant acknowledgement of regional difference. Among the cultural differences that films began to pay greater attention to was dialect: people on screen spoke in ‘dialects’ more often than even before. In Siva the city’s criminal gangs are ‘cleaned up’ by a middle class college student. The gangsters spoke in the Telangana dialect while the hero, his family and friends as well as the principal villain spoke in the coastal Andhra dialect. This is Varma’s first film and an important early example of a particular type of realism the filmmaker took to the Mumbai gangster film. This realism is characterized by its close attention to the city’s geography (naming of streets where action is set, etc) and local culture, including dialects. The city’s urban landscape, including its narrow, labyrinthine lanes and ‘Irani’ restaurants, became the staging ground for the film’s action. In later Telugu films the basti (urban neighbourhood), which this film was the first to represent on screen, would acquire iconic status and was easily recognized as a metonym of everything that was quaint and dangerous about Hyderabad. It is no coincidence that the film featured Nagarjuna, son of Akkineni Nageswara Rao who a generation earlier insisted that his producers shoot in the city, and was produced by the company owned by the family. Siva thus showcases the production facilities built by the family in Hyderabad. This was indeed a sign that the long drawn moment of arrival was finally over.
Over the years the older difference between the old and new city, in any case something of an issue among the locals for decades, took on a new significance on screen. The new city was dialect-less, which only meant the characters spoke in the coastal Andhra dialect. New city was the capital of the industry’s imagination where everyone was Telugu and no more. The old city on the other hand was represented as space for criminals, predominantly or significantly Muslim or lower caste Hindu, and its residents spoke in (Telangana) dialect. This was the physical location for the obscene excess of identity that the film industry’s version of Teluguness was confronted with as film production shifted to Hyderabad. From the moment of the film industry’s arrival into Hyderabad, the city, especially the old city, was a space that had to be cleaned up by the vigilante hero played by a major star. While Siva was positioned as an off beat film and something of an exception, more mainstream films too arrived at the same ‘problem.’ State Rowdy (B. Gopal, 1989) for example revolves around its vigilante hero’s attempt to rid the city, and by extension society, of criminal elements. In a sequence that featured prominently in this film’s publicity material, the hero, played by Chiranjeevi the industry’s biggest star, is seen thrashing a criminal against the backdrop of Charminar, the old city’s most famous monument about which I will have much to say in the following pages.
The old city continues to be the site of criminal activity and backwardness in films. Recent films like Nuvvu-Nenu/You and I (Teja, 2001) as well as Sye/Challenge (S.S. Rajamouli, 2004) present the old city’s residents as lower castes who are also violent and culturally backward.15 No recent has film has presented more starkly the old city-new city difference in terms of a crime/backwardness versus modernity dualism than Danger (Krishna Vamsy, 2005). In this film a corrupt backward caste politician who undertakes human sacrifice to become the Chief Minister of the state represents the old city. Today the cinematic old city also houses the Muslim terrorist who is an increasing presence in the post-9/11 Telugu films. Balakrishna, the son of N.T. Rama Rao, plays an army officer who confronts Pakistan trained Muslim terrorists in the old city in Vijayendra Varma (Swarna Subba Rao, 2005). In Ranam/Battle (Amma Rajasekhar, 2006) the hero battles a gangster who has seized control of the city from a Muslim gang. Both hero and villain are from the same district of coastal Andhra. Not surprisingly this is the district to which the film’s lead star Gopichand, a relative new comer to the industry, traces his origins. Claims on the city are therefore far from simple in contemporary films.

It is against this history (and future) of Telugu cinema’s attempts to sublimate Hyderabad’s difference and cleanse it of its excesses that I wish to situate Okkadu/The One (Gunasekhar, 2003), one of the most commercially successful films ever made in Telugu. The film is a useful point of entry for understanding Telugu cinema’s considerable stake in and contribution to maintaining the status quo of the political geography of Andhra Pradesh and also the ways in which recent Telugu films work to manage regional differences. Especially at a time when there is increasing evidence that the state of Andhra Pradesh is closer to reorganization than ever before due to the unprecedented clout and popularity of the political parties that are calling for a separate Telangana state. In passing I would like to mention that the film has been successfully remade, following a common enough practice of re-shooting a successful film with a different set of actors, in Tamil as Gilli (Dharani, 2004). Thus suggesting that the problems the film attempts to resolve might have a larger currency than the state of Andhra Pradesh.16

The film is textually interesting for two reasons. Firstly, it re-imagines the old city even as it acknowledges and indeed resolves the issue of regional difference. Secondly, Okkadu is set quite literally against the backdrop of the 400-year old Charminar, the old city’s most famous monument and the city’s official symbol. In Telugu cinema Charminar has been the metonym for the city of Hyderabad in general but also closely identified with the criminal underbelly of the old city. Murders and riots often occur around this monument in Telugu films. The old city has also been a site of communal violence between Hindus and Muslims and Charminar has figured prominent as a hotspot of this kind of violence too in the news media.

The story of Okkadu revolves around Ajay (Mahesh Babu), the son of a high ranking police officer but also an integral part of the old city’s action. He is a member of a neighbourhood gang and the captain of the Charminar kabadi team.17 To participate in a kabadi tournament he travels to Kurnool, a Rayalaseema town notorious for blood feuds between its ‘faction leaders’ (local political elite).18 Here he rescues the heroine Swapna (Bhoomika) from the ‘factionist’ Obul Reddy (Prakash Raj), who tries to force her into marriage. Reddy’s brother is the powerful Home Minister of the state and orders the police to trace the couple. On the run from Obul Reddy and later from the police, Ajay brings Swapna to the old city and hides her at home even as he makes arrangements to send her to her uncle in the USA. When his parents discover her, he shifts her to Charminar itself. Swapna falls in love with Ajay and refuses to leave for USA. Ajay and Swapna are captured by the police and handed over to Obul Reddy. Ajay escapes and takes a captive Obul Reddy to watch the kabadi tournament in which the Charminar team is playing in the finals. The Charminar team wins and Ajay thus qualifies for direct admission into the Indian Police Service. Obul Reddy escapes and attacks Ajay in the kabadi field only to be defeated by him. Swapna’s father then kills the villain, avenging the murder of his two sons.

Imagining the Old City anew: Genre and Region
There can be little doubt that this film’s representation of the old city, with Charminar as its key signifier, is novel. The hero’s status as an old city local is reiterated on a number of occasions. The early part of the film is devoted to establishing a close relationship between Ajay and the old city. Rayalaseema, its factions, and factionists are presented as violent intrusions into the normal world, youth gangs included. In order to appreciate how the Rayalaseema region and its disruptive elements figure in this film it is necessary to note the prior history of representing the factionist.
Since the late 1990s Rayalaseema has been the subject matter of the most significant Telugu film genre in recent times. Disingenuously, the genre is called the Rayalaseema faction film. Of late some of the most expensive star vehicles of the biggest stars of the industry have been faction films. While Okkadu has at times been classified as a faction film, it is useful to distinguish it from most other faction films in which the protagonist is in fact a member of one of the feuding families. It is also useful to note that the faction film and the production of Rayalaseema as a region which threatens the civilised normalcy of the rest of the state is a direct fallout of the spill-over of faction rivalries into Hyderabad city itself. K. Balagopal (1988) allows us to date this new development rather precisely: to the local body elections in Hyderabad in 1987. During this election a Rayalaseema faction leader belonging to N.T. Rama Rao’ Telugu Desam Party, then in power, indulged in sensational and violent acts of (polling) booth capture, voter intimidation, etc (Balagopal 1988: 217). Ever since a number of spectacular acts of violence, including political assassinations and landmine explosions in the capital city that have been attributed to factionists. Even as the faction film emerged as the film industry’s response to this new development, political leaders allegedly belonging to rival factions became increasingly prominent in both the ruling Telugu Desam and opposition Congress parties. The rise of the factionist would actually culminate in the election to Chief Ministership of a factionist in 2004 (Balagopal 2004).
Okkadu was of course not trying to predict the future but merely working with the public perception of the capabilities of the factionist to disrupt life in Hyderabad as well as the cinematic construction of this threat in the faction film. One more point about the faction film: its emergence is almost exactly coeval with the renewal of the demand for the statehood for Telangana. Quite clearly, in addition to the appearance of the factionist in Hyderabad, there is also a displacement at work here. After all it is not Rayalaseema that poses the threat to the survival of Andhra Pradesh but Telangana.
By the late nineties the threat of disintegration was felt rather immediately by the film industry. Not merely because fragmentation of the state meant division of the film market but also because there was now the unprecedented possibility of the emergence of regional market with the rise of genres that were catering to audiences in particular regions (rather than the whole state).19 That is precisely the kind of problem that a faction film or a big budget production like Okkadu is meant to address. These are integrationist films in more ways than one: their interest in a unified Andhra Pradesh is inseparable from their investment in an integrated film market.
The point about Okkadu, as with the Rayalaseema faction film, is not the (mis)representation of this region as backward. Neither is it the mere suggestion that the region has not been integrated into the rest of the state. Rather it is the critical role played by the disruptive discovery of the backward region at the narrative level in making a fundamentally integrationist argument around unassimilated region(s).
Okkadu follows the conventions of the late 1990s faction film in representing the Rayalaseema region as one that is plagued by violent faction feuds. The pitting of an old city resident against the factionist is an unprecedented manoeuvre for Telugu cinema. Its significance lies in a confrontation between two places, which have both been cinematically represented as being characterised by crime and backwardness.20 A critical difference however is that the old city we see in Okkadu is no longer the old city of Telugu cinema. In more ways than one, the old city we see in Okkadu is entirely fabricated.
The old city, with Charminar as its centre, we seen in the film is an expensively and painstakingly constructed film set. According to some reports the ‘Charminar set’ was erected at a cost of two crore (twenty million) rupees,21 which to hazard a guess is at least 20-25% of the film’s production budget. Convenience has been cited as the reason for the recent trend of sinking large amounts of money in gigantic sets—you cant after all shoot in the crowded old city in day light and in any case Charminar itself was closed to all visitors when the film was being made.22 Investment in monumental ‘realistic’ sets is in fact a part of a larger trend in Telugu cinema and is traceable to Gunasekhar’s Choodalani Vundi/What I’d Love to See (1998), featuring Chiranjeevi. The sets not only showcased the industry’s ability to deploy larger amounts of money in film production but also helped Telugu films go places—to other cities such as Calcutta (now Kolkata) in Choodalani Vundi. The Telugus were clearly on the move and the backdrop of the Indian nation was now an essential part of their life stories, or so the film industry would want us to believe.23 Okkadu therefore departs from the emerging (and continuing trend) by staying within Hyderabad but transforming it.
There are two questions I wish to ask in the light of the film’s representation of the old city: firstly how Charminar and its neighbourhood become a de-localized place or a place that has been stripped of its characteristic features. Let me clarify that I do not have in mind some notion of the ‘real’ place as a point of comparison at all. It is cinematic and other media representations of the old city since the late 1980s that I wish to use as a template against which this film’s old city can be mounted. My second question is what the significance of this transformation is.
The old city exists in this film at two distinct levels. The first is the real world. Narrow streets filled with people, mostly Muslims, exist in the background and are invoked on occasion. The second is another kind of space, which exists in close physical proximity to this first but in fact comes into existence by shutting out the real or keeping it at bay. The roof-top neighbourhood where a great deal of action is set—the city of the story—is far from being a space created by a conventionally realistic aesthetic. By which I mean that it is not meant to approximate to any actual place out there. Indeed from the rooftop we get a glimpse of the crowded streets below, which is in fact the familiar old city of cinematic convention. On one occasion characters almost fall to their death into the city streets below. That part of the old city enters the story world but briefly and I will have more to say about it later. Interestingly, in a number of scenes the real world below too is a fabricated—it is a product of computer special effects. (Insert Image 2. Caption: Rooftop neighbourhood and the ‘real’ world below)
The film’s old city is a fantasy space. It is here that the lead pair falls in love and Charminar itself serves as the setting for their romance. Okkadu does not attempt to present Charminar in a conventionally realistic manner. Instead, the monument is represented in a manner that deliberately detaches it from any immediate geographical context. There are moments in the film when it is presented as existing in the middle of nowhere—physically free of any traces of place and becoming a pure space for fantasy. The film actually ends with the lovers’ return to Charminar. The very last shot of the film has the camera orbiting around the monument with the lovers in an embrace. (Insert Image 1. Caption: Ajay and Swapna on the Charminar)
Not all places that the film represented are recreated in the set. When the lovers move from the old city to the newer parts, including the airport, they move out of the set or fantasy space into actual outdoor locations including major tourist sites such as Tank Bund. Needless to add, these are places where danger lurks.

Interestingly, although the film makes a distinction between the two levels of the city’s existence, it is not as if the lower level (of streets filled with Muslims) poses any danger to the lovers. There is a fascinating sequence in which Ajay and Swapna are chased by Obul Reddy’s men and make their escape by blending into the crowds of Muslim men and women.

There is another ‘real’ place, apart from the new city, that exists outside the old city: Kurnool in particular and Rayalaseema in general. Rayalaseema sequences are almost entirely shot outdoors, at times in easily recognisable public places. Obul Reddy is introduced murdering Swapna’s brother in the Kurnool railway station; Ajay rescues Swapna by hitting Reddy against the backdrop of the town’s most recognisable landmark, the Kondareddy Buruzu, which has of late become the setting of many a violent scene in the faction film. (Insert image 3. Caption: After the murder at the Kurnool railway station)
In this film Andhra Pradesh is not one unified place but many. Like in the faction film Rayalaseema here too is the ‘region,’ unassimilated into the rest of Andhra Pradesh and characterised by its lack (of cultural and economic development) and excess (of violence). As in the faction film, the ‘problems’ of the region are traced to one source: the villainous factionist. The song sequence introducing the heroine is useful to understand the hero’s transformative role. Occurring immediately after the brutal murder in the railway station, the song has Swapna in an idyllic rural setting, reminiscent of many a ‘nativity’ sequence in Telugu films.24 The juxtaposition of sequences provides a stark contrast between the Rayalaseema of the factionists and the land of the innocent victims. The heroine, like the land itself, is a captive of the factionist. I will suggest here that the reinvention of the old city has a great deal to do with the problem posed by the factionist.
Returning to my earlier point of the transformation of the old city into a fantasy space, it is accompanied by the de-localisation of our hero, who in spite of his strong identification with this space actually does not speak in (Telangana) dialect. The obvious explanation for this is that Ajay is a recent immigrant and therefore not from the Telangana region but nevertheless has a deep attachment to the city.25 It would indeed be nativist to discount such a response to the city, any city. However, such an explanation of what the film is attempting to do would be a realist fallacy: it is founded on the assumption that films approximate to the real world or mirror it. Okkadu like most films transforms reality. To say so is no doubt restating the obvious. This film allows us to see that the material films work with is not snapshots of the real world but its mediation by other films. So Ajay’s inability/refusal to speak in dialect is not to be read as a sign of recent migration. He quite simply belongs to a new old city, which no longer burdens its residents with signs of backwardness.26
Evidence of the possibility of such a transformation of the old city is presented very early in the film. There is a song sequence in which the rooftop neighbourhood suddenly becomes a highly globalised space. It is during this song that we have our first clear view of Charminar. In the song there is an MTV-like juxtaposition of the quaint and the new, of the recognisably local (Hyderabad/old city), national (Telugu/Indian) and global. Hindus and Muslims have shed their mutual suspicion and their difference of attire and rituals becomes part of the local colour. Racially white women too are a part of this space. Even in the fiction, this is a fantasy scenario, like most songs. Here it is presented as a product of the hero’s imagination. In the course of the song the rooftop neighbourhood has been transformed into a space of aspiration. This is the destiny, the future of the old city. (Insert image 4. Caption: The city of aspirations.)
The future however is threatened by a blockage, which comes in the form of Obul Reddy and what he represents. In the film the difference between the old city and Rayalaseema, which as I pointed out were both trouble spots in earlier films, is that the former is already well on its way to the future: it houses aspirations and, better still, romance.27 Rayalaseema, on the other hand, cannot be the site of aspiration and fantasy. In part because the film industry has yet to put in place a narrative about kicking the backward countryside into the future. But also because the escape from the ‘region’ is a critical part of the promise of the future. Okkadu’s old city is a space that has already shed its excessive particularity. The thrust of the film is broadly in the direct of de-territorialization of the city (not re-territorialization of Bangalore along regional lines as Nair argues is the case of Kannada cinema).
Okkadu offers a new justification for a region-less Andhra Pradesh: our particularity is what stands between the future and us. The newness of the justification lies in its disregard for any nationalist claims that are made on behalf of language and linguistic identity. The ‘region’ does not pose a threat to our Teluguness but prevents us from arriving at tomorrow.
[Acknowledgements: An earlier version of this paper was presented at the “Workshop on Cinematic Representation of the Tropical Urban /City,” 17-18 March 2006, Singapore. I am grateful to the participants of the workshop for the animated discussion that followed the presentation of the paper. I also wish to thank Rajan Krishnan for send me a copy of his unpublished paper and also allowing me to quote from it. Discussion of the film and disagreements with T. Vishnu Vardhan have proved useful to formulate my argument better.]


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1 See for instance Lawrence Liang (2005) whose argument on citizenship in India does not use films as evidence but draws on the debates within film studies in India on the subject.

2 See for example Hardgrave and Niedhart 1975, Pandian 1992 and Dickey 1993 on Tamil Nadu.

3 Prasad argues,
Cine-politics is not about the infusion of star charisma into electoral politics, nor about the use of cinema to disseminate party slogans. It is a distinct form of political engagement that emerged in some of the linguistically defined states of southern India at a certain historical juncture where Indian nationalism’s ideological suturing could not take care of certain gaps in the symbolic chain. A set of contingent factors led to a situation where cinema, a form of entertainment that was then [1950s] learning to speak, came to be chosen as the site of a strong political investment, where audiences responded with enthusiasm to an offer of leadership emanating from the screen and, through fans associations that emerged later, established a concrete set of everyday practices that re-affirmed the position of the star as leader (1999: 49).

4 See Hansen 2001 for an account of language and identity politics in Mumbai city. Nair draws attention to violence against Malayalam speakers in Chennai in the 1970s in the course of her discussion to violence against Tamils and Muslims in Bangalore (2005: 251).

5 From the 1980s the Telugu film industry has been producing 150-200 feature films every year. 20-30% of these films are dubbed from other south Indian languages, but also increasing imported films from Hollywood and Hong Kong, which in the earlier decades were released only in their English versions. Accurate estimates of how much of the film market is catered to by fully home-grown productions are not available. During my interviews with film distributors and exhibitors in different cities of Andhra Pradesh (2001-2003) my collaborators ‘guesstimated’ that imported films had a 10-20% market share in the state. The overwhelming majority of the market (70-80%) was captured by local Telugu productions and films dubbed into Telugu from other Indian languages. While these estimates are likely to be inaccurate, there can be little doubt that in all three regions of the state films originally made in Telugu dominate the film market at present.

6 Puchalapalli (1946) is by far the most authoritative account of the Communist Party of India’s stand on the formation of Andhra Pradesh.

7 For a discussion of various aspects related to agitation for the creation of a Telangana state see Simhadri and Vishweshwer Rao (1997). In the past four years the demand has been spearheaded by a new political party, Telangana Rashtra Samiti, which has representatives in the state assembly. It also had two ministers in the central government till it ended its alliance with the Congress (I) in 2006, which was seen as backtracking on its earlier assurances on the statehood issue.

8 For an analysis of the demands for separate Telangana and Andhra states in the 1960s-70s see Hugh Gray (1971 and 1974). See also Jadhav 1997 for an argument about the importance of the movement for a separate Telangana state in this period.

9 Kodavatiganti (1964), scriptwriter and leftist public intellectual, argued that the Telugu film industry (prior to its relocation in Hyderabad) was ‘an industry in exile.’

10 Information on the Telugu film industry is difficult to come by. Andhra Pradesh Film Chamber Journal (1964) records some key developments of the period. In his critical essay on the history of the industry in Hyderabad till the mid-1980s, Bhageeratha points out that a lot of land originally allotted by the government for the film industry was under litigation. After three decades of effort, the author laments, it was still not clear whether the film industry had to Hyderabad to stay (1986: 74). Venkata Rao’s biography of N.T. Rama Rao points out that the star’s acquisition of land to construct cinema halls in Hyderabad established a strong bond between him and Hyderabad (2000: 22-23).

11 Srivatsava (1964) made the suggestion that Hyderabad had the potential to make films in Hindi/Urdu. He goes to point out the fact that the city’s inhabitants speak, ‘Kannada, Marathi, Telugu, Urdu, Gujarati and Hindi.’ Further, there were schools, knowledge centres and entertainment providers in these languages so films could be made in any of these languages in Hyderabad (70). Curiously, Srivatsava expresses a sigh of relief that Telugu films produced in Hyderabad spoke in ‘pure Telugu.’ In the initial days, he says, he was worried that film would acquire the worst elements of all the three regional dialects (73).

12 I have made this argument at some length elsewhere (Srinivas 2006) but I would like to add that all south Indian cinemas evolved a variety of techniques to make similar claims on their constituencies.

13 Industry observers and journalists alike have often stated that very few cinema halls in Hyderabad exhibited Telugu films regularly till the formation of Andhra Pradesh. Reminiscencing about the early talkie era (1930s), one author states that only one cinema halls showed Telugu films on a regular basis while a number of cinemas in the city showed English, Hindi and Urdu films (Damodaraswamy 1986: 58). Narasaiah (1981: 141) claims that even in 1956 there was only cinema hall screening Telugu films regularly. Even if Narasaiah’s claim is not entirely accurate, it is undeniable that the formation of the state of Andhra Pradesh resulted in the rapid increase in the production of Telugu films, which went up from 27 in 1956 to 47 in 1959 and fell below 50 only on four occasions after 1960. In 1967 there were 62 Telugu films and after 1976, there have always been more than 90 productions in every single year. In the 1980s and 1990s Telugu film production matched and at times overtook the production levels of Hindi (Rajadhyaksha and Willemen 1999: 31-32).

14 Based on figures published in the Andhra Pradesh Film Chamber Journal (1964: 56) and Andhra Pradesh Film Chamber of Commerce 1981 (131).

15 Telugu films do not have official English titles. I have provided rough translations of film titles wherever possible to give some sense of what they mean.

16 Rajan Krishnan’s essay (forthcoming 2007) on the Tamil equivalents of the faction film (discussed below) allows us to see that the genre’s appeal cuts across state boundaries and might therefore pose questions that are truly (south Indian) regional. Krishnan himself does not make a comparative analysis but a number of films he examines, including Gilli, are familiar to audiences in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh either because they have been remade or dubbed from one language to the other. Okkadu has in fact been remade in Kannada as well. Surely, much remains to be said about the eminently translatable nature of the issues that the film deals with.

17 Rajan Krishnan (forthcoming 2007) has this excellent description of kabadi, which I will cite instead of labouring at producing another: ‘kabadi is played by two teams of 12 players each on a 12.50 metre by 10 metre rectangular court in which a player, while holding his breath, dashes into the opponent team's area, touches some player(s) and/or wrestles out to come back home safely without releasing his breath and thereby scores point for his team’ (n. 6).

18 See Balagopal 2004 for a detailed account of faction politics in Rayalaseema and its increased importance in the state’s politics. The term factionist is used in Telugu and English journalism to refer to leaders of political factions of the region.

19 The immediate cause for concern was the low budget ‘Naxalite film.’ The Naxalite film, or the red film as it is sometimes called, is a uniquely Telugu film genre which features the underground ultra left Maoist guerrillas as protagonists. It gets its name from the Naxalite, a member of the innumerable groups which had their common origin in the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) or CPI (ML). The largest Naxalite group in India called Communist Party of India (Maoist), earlier known as the CPI (ML) People’s War, and other groups have been active in Andhra Pradesh since the late sixties. The Naxalite film has its origin in the pro-communist “red films” of the seventies but focuses on the armed struggle of Naxalite movement (there are unarmed Naxalite groups as well). Naxalite films often revolve around themes of feudal exploitation, armed rebellion against it and state repression on the rebels as well as the oppressed masses. Most Naxalite films were set in the Telangana region where Maoists are in fact active. Maoists are heroes of these films and their struggle is often valorised. However, Naxalite parties themselves have found the genre highly objectionable. The actor-director-producer R. Narayana Murthy is largely responsible for assembling the genre from scratch in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the mid-nineties the film industry attempted a wholesale appropriation of this marginal genre, which till this point was a one-man cottage industry. Narayana Murthy’s 90s hits like Erra Sainyam/Red Army (Narayana Murthy, 1995) prompted the industry to make slicker variants of the genre. One such film Osey Ramulamma/You There, Ramulamma (Dasari Narayana Rao, 1997) is among the most successful 90s films. By the late 1990s, when the film industry returned the genre to Narayana Murthy, the Naxalite film had demonstrated that films targeting regional audiences, in this instance Telangana, were in fact sustainable.

20 Preminchukundam Raa/Come Lets Fall in Love (Jayanth C. Paranji, 1997), the very first to have represented Rayalaseema factionism on screen too is set in Kurnool. Here too the hero (Venkatesh) is a resident of Hyderabad. But Hyderabad is only an incidental setting: like the Bombay cinema that Madhava Prasad talks about, it could have been any place, as long as it was outside Rayalaseema.

21 See for example the review of the film on

22 See the report titled “Setting New Highs” in the Kochi edition of The Hindu:

23 Other films in the recent past with remarkable sets are Indra (B. Gopal, 2002, a faction featuring Chiranjeevi and set partly in Varanasi) and Arjun (Gunasekhar, 2004, featuring Mahesh Babu and recreating the famous Madurai Meenakshi temple).

24 Nativity has nothing to do with Christianity. The English word has been used by the Telugu film industry to refer to a variety of things. Having its origin in the attempt to name the production of Telugu-ness (‘native-ness’) on screen, the concept has rich connotations in Telugu. For decades now, nativity has been something of a hold-all category for the attempt by the south Indian film industries to create a diegetic space that is at once distinct from and related to the (Indian) ‘national’ one. Nativity is a crucial site for the often difficult negotiation between linguistic identity or the particularity of the local and the larger Indian nation-state. In Telugu cinema nativity is often produced by references to stock signifiers: paddy fields, women in traditional attire, etc.

25 Like most major stars of Telugu cinema Mahesh Babu belongs to a family, which had its origins in the Andhra region and arrived at Hyderabad from Madras because of the film industry. His father, Krishna, was a major star and among the very first major industry figures to relocate to Hyderabad from Chennai. He also built a studio in Hyderabad.

26 T. Vishnu Vardhan in course of a discussion of the film pointed out to me that kabadi is a game that is closely identified in the old city with the backward caste communities. It is therefore necessary to read Ajay as having an ‘authentic’ claim to the old city. The point about kabadi is interesting—Rajan Krishnan too points out that it is a subaltern sport. While I am tempted to build on Vishnu Vardhan’s suggestion I am prevented from doing so by the absence of any other signifiers commonly deployed in Telugu films suggesting lower caste status. Further, even if we were to assume that Ajay can be read (and certainly has been read by sections of the film’s audience according to Vishnu Vardhan) as an old city backward caste youth, my larger argument about the film’s imaging of the old city is actually strengthened.

27 See Madhava Prasad (1998) for an interesting argument on the relationship between love in Indian cinema and capitalism.

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